Hunter S. Thompson is one of those literary figures who, like the Beat Generation writers, divides opinion. His controversial books inspired legions of fans, and more than a few critics. As with the Beats, Thompson is often viewed as an outsider and a rebel; his contributions to the literary canon seen merely as a quirky commentary on a weird stage in American culture. Even among those who admire his work, there is no real consensus on what exactly made him great.

His style of writing is notoriously difficult to categorize, and for that reason he has been placed within his own genre: Gonzo. But what does that mean? Thompson always dreamed of being a novelist, but fell into journalism. What he became was something between the two: an author of ostensibly non-fictional prose, in which the line between reality and fantasy is rather blurred, with himself as protagonist. Only New Journalism came close to overlapping Thompson’s unique efforts, but even then his work differed somewhat from others in that genre because of his own wild – often clownish – actions.

After starting out writing about sports for small-time newspapers, Thompson shot to fame with his first book, Hell’s Angels. During the late sixties and early seventies, he developed his already unique voice into something virtually inimitable. His writing began to take on almost trademark elements, and he included certain uncommon words and phrases (like “atavistic”) that became his catchphrases. By the end of his life, critics observed that his work had become almost like a parody of his earlier work, as he repeated the same ideas and phrases.

Yet in his heyday, Thompson’s writing was electrifying. Some of his books – Hell’s Angels, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 – defy categorization, but nonetheless burrowed into both popular consciousness and the literary establishment. At his very best, few could deny this was a writer with an incredible gift, and so Thompson’s books have made their way into libraries and classrooms.

But what made Thompson’s writing so special? Much has been made of the obvious elements, the ones that shocked his readers and earned him the adoration of the counterculture: profanity, drug-abuse, hyperbole, and a conflation of fact and fiction. Those odd words like “atavistic” and “selah”, and the phrase “fear and loathing” came to mark much of his prose, as did unconventional capitalization. However, there are various points in his work where he drops the more extreme and recognizable devices, and writes in a more conventional style, and his voice is still unmistakable. Even if you cut out obvious stylistic elements and familiar themes – the politics, sports, drugs, and guns – there is something under the surface that gives away the author in just a few lines. It is almost as though you can hear his voice reading in your head.

I have long wondered what made Thompson’s writing so unique, and over the past few years I have tried to identify parts of his prose that may be responsible. Certainly, his punctuation is unconventional, but it hardly defines his style. He often has a very clipped, to-the-point style that presumably came from his early journalist days, but that actually gives way to more classical literary phrasing in his more poignant passages.

Finally, I decided that what separated Thompson from other writers was the rhythm of his prose. There was something he did – something hard to pin-point – that lifted his words off the paper and implanted them firmly in the reader’s head. I believe this was something Thompson deliberately sought to achieve, and in this essay I will look at his famous piece of writing to explore just how he found this talent.

Gonzo: Journalism? Fiction? Poetry?

In looking at the rhythm of Thompson’s work, it is important to understand that for him, these were never just words on paper. He was a good technical writer when he wanted to be, but there was more to it than just word choice and punctuation. Just like a poet, Thompson considered sound and breath as important elements of composition, placing his work within the oral tradition as much as the written. He liked to hear his work read aloud, and visitors to his home were sometimes asked to perform for him. He once explained:

When you’re reading aloud, just remember that you want to understand it yourself. You have to hear it. That’s the key to other people comprehending. You’ve got to hear the music. You need to hit each word. Not the way journalists read but with a dramatic rendering. It takes awhile. It’s easier to comprehend when you creep along, like driving in second gear. The listener should be impatient for what’s coming next.

For Thompson, music and literature were bound together, and the rhythm of the prose was as important as the word chosen to convey meaning. Thompson was not just a concise author, but one whose work was often poetic. His prose leant well to dramatic reading precisely because of its musicality. Take for example what is perhaps his most famous passage, which was adapted to the big screen and read to music by Johnny Depp:

One doesn’t have to be a talented actor to make this passage sound beautiful. There is something in the rhythm of the prose that is virtually perfect, and even reading it silently, it brings chills to the spine. It is not just an incredibly beautiful, and yet terribly sad, image; Thompson’s use of sentence structure, which I feel has been entirely overlooked, is essential to making this passage so effective.

His ability to string together sentences in such a poetic, musical fashion was something he long sought to achieve, and ultimately it came handed down through the pages of other great novels.

Thompson’s Literary Influences

Above, I stated that Thompson’s writing was utterly unique, and while I stand by that statement, he was, like almost all great authors, influenced by his predecessors. The two biggest influences on Thompson’s work were Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, but elsewhere he took ideas and language directly from John Dos Passos and Norman Mailer, molding them all into his own genre, Gonzo.

As a young man, Thompson even typed out whole novels by his favorite authors “to get the feel of how it is to write those words.” Later, he was worried about being overly influenced by Hemingway, whose writing clearly inspired much of Thompson’s earlier work, whereas he made efforts to play up the role of Fitzgerald in shaping his style. In particular, he wanted readers to notice just how concise he could be, with hardly a wasted word – just like his hero, the man for whom he’d named his only son, Juan Fitzgerald Thompson.

An obsession with Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby seems to have been a constant throughout Thompson’s life. From his earliest interest in books, he was determined to copy Fitzgerald’s achievement, Gatsby, which Thompson called the “Great American Novel.” He often boasted to friends and girlfriends that he was the Fitzgerald of his generation, and many years later, after the release of his own masterpiece, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Thompson sometimes claimed he’d surpassed Fitzgerald.

The fact that Thompson typed out The Great Gatsby to “get the feel” for writing a masterpiece is important. While perhaps the influence of Hemingway (or even Dos Passos and Mailer) is more obvious, I think it is precisely Thompson’s interest in matching Fitzgerald that gave him the sense of rhythm that marked his writing as special, and elevated him above other talented and ground-breaking authors. Above, I mentioned there being a certain musicality to Thompson’s prose. I believe that, in Fitzgerald, Thompson found a musicality that leant itself to literature, and instilled in him the appreciation for reading his work aloud, thus giving him the ability to create prose possessing a natural rhythm and pacing that would captivate readers. One clue to this is a quote from an early letter, in which he observes that Fitzgerald “could make a typewriter sound like a piano”. Elsewhere, he mentioned picking up a Portuguese translation in Brazil, and claimed that if “Fitzgerald had been a Brazilian he’d have had that country dancing to words instead of music”. So clearly Thompson had found in Fitzgerald’s work some musicality he wished to emulate.

To explore this further, I’ll go back to the passage Johnny Depp read in the video above, which is commonly known as “the wave speech”. As the passage is slightly different in the book, I’ll repeat it here:

It seems like a lifetime, or at least a Main Era — the kind of peak that never comes again. San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run… but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant…
History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of ‘history’ it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time — and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened.
My central memory of that time seems to hang on one or five or maybe forty nights — or very early mornings — when I left the Fillmore half-crazy and, instead of going home, aimed the big 650 Lightning across the Bay Bridge at a hundred miles an hour… booming through the Treasure Island tunnel at the lights of Oakland and Berkeley and Richmond, not quite sure which turnoff to take when I got to the other end… but being absolutely certain that no matter which way I went I would come to a place where people were just as high and wild as I was: no doubt at all about that…
There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda… You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning…
And that, I think, was the handle — that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting — on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave…
So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes, you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

In attempting to understand just why this passage works so well, I decided to look at the number of syllables Thompson used per sentence. I did this because throughout his entire body of work I have felt that he has a special gift for varying sentence length. Although almost all writers do this to some extent, I felt that Thompson’s use was particularly effective, and that in certain parts of certain stories, he would utilize a certain rhythm that really gripped the reader, stringing together clauses to build impatience like a showman building up excitement for the grand finale. What I noticed was hardly surprising. In this case, the length of the sentences actually mimics his imagery pretty accurately:

hunter s thompson wave speech

In other words, it looks very much like a wave, and a wave that peaks during his description of the cultural heyday to which his metaphor refers. But it is not just sentence length. Thompson’s punctuation could be quite unconventional, but it always reflected how he believed his work should be read aloud. If we break the passage into breaths according to some basic rules of his punctuation, we can see it looks very similar to the above syllabic breakdown:

hunter s thompson wave speech 2

What is the significance of this, if any? To my mind, it shows a level of craftsmanship in Thompson that is not normally acknowledged. Here is an author whose prose is as carefully polished (at times) as any poet. He is able to write in a way that reflects the underlying meaning of his story. These were not words on paper; this was music. Indeed, Thompson once told his friend, P.J. O’Rourke: “I see my work as essentially music… If it fits musically, it will go to almost any ear.”

Thompson’s “wave” passage is among one of the most enduring images in twentieth century American literature, and I think that it was more than slightly influenced by possibly the best-known piece of imagery: the green light from The Great Gatsby. The final page of Gatsby brings us face to face with that green light, and ends with a somewhat cryptic, but rather pessimistic line:

On the last night, with my trunk packed and my car sold to the grocer, I went over and looked at that huge incoherent failure of a house once more. On the white steps an obscene word, scrawled by some boy with a piece of brick, stood out clearly in the moonlight and I erased it, drawing my shoe raspingly along the stone. Then I wandered down to the beach and sprawled out on the sand.

Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes — a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.
And as I sat there, brooding on the old unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…. And one fine morning —
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Both passages describe, in quite similar terms, the near achievement of a dream that brings unprecedented hope and excitement, but which ultimately ends in failure. For Thompson, that dream was represented by a wave which “finally broke and rolled back” across America, but for Fitzgerald it disappeared into the dark fields of America and “rolled on under the night”. In both cases the authors are talking about the American Dream, and the end of a period of hope for a character that represents a group of people – dreamers, optimists – in the real world. Thompson and Fitzgerald also use geography and the notion of movement across – or towards – a continent in order to symbolize the life and death of hope.

The rhythm of both passages is unmistakably similar. They begin with several sentences of varying length, setting the scene. Then they develop into far longer compound-complex sentences, layering details and ideas in multiple clauses, before finally breaking into shorter fragments, divided by odd punctuation. Both Thompson and Fitzgerald use em dashes and aposiopesis in their penultimate paragraphs, and their antepenultimate paragraphs are marked by a jumbled variety of different sentences types. It is an ellipsis for both passages that marks the breaking of a misguided sense of hope – in Thompson’s it is the wave breaking, and in Fitzgerald’s it is a switch from focusing on Gatsby’s hopeful quest to a bleak wider reality. Both passages conclude with final paragraphs beginning with the word “So” and featuring a hypothetical person looking west, into the past. Thompson’s gazes at a “high water mark” where a wave “broke and rolled back” while Fitzgerald’s persists uselessly “against the current”, the flow of water in each case a metaphor for cultural progression.

If we return to the notion of syllabic construction, we can see just how similar they were:

gatsby green light syllables

The main difference is that Thompson’s final sentence is far longer, whereas Fitzgerald’s stops rather abruptly, a fittingly jarring end to the story. The extended final sentence is common in Thompson’s work when a particular thread of the story reaches its denouement.

To take one final close look at the composition of these passages, and to appreciate just how similar they could be, we shall look at the penultimate paragraphs more closely:

And that, I think, was the handle — that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting — on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave…

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…. And one fine morning —

The structure of these lines is remarkably similar. Both first sentences begin with a statement (of eight syllables), followed by clause that gives a definition. In that second clause, although there are a different number of syllables, the word stress pattern is essentially the same, with six content words: sense/inevitable/victory/forces/old/evil; orgastic/future/year/year/recedes/before. What follows is a negative statement (“not in…”/ “it eluded…”) followed by statements that may as well have been directly paraphrased: “we didn’t need that”/ “that’s no matter”. What then follows is less similar in a structural sense, but nonetheless thematically related. The following short clauses build a sense of hope that is about to be dashed going into the final paragraph.

More on Thompson and Fitzgerald

There is an unpublished “letter-article” in The Proud Highway that Thompson wrote for The National Observer back in his early journalist days. In it, he talks a lot about Fitzgerald (as he did in many of his letters from that period), saying that he had recently re-read The Great Gatsby. He starts off joking about whether the story that follows is a product his mind or Fitzgerald’s, and later he quotes a passage from Gatsby, and it is incredible how well it fits into the article. Thompson’s voice is – consciously or otherwise – very similar to Fitzgerald’s. The rhythm simply doesn’t change from one paragraph to the next. And this should not be a surprise.

The “wave speech” may well be Thompson at his finest, but a quick look through his best works show that this particular rhythm was not isolated. This pattern may well look, when mapped out as I have done above, like a wave, and it is likely that the rhythm followed such a pattern in order to convey the metaphor in terms of sound, but it is also story-telling device for building interest and emotion. When he wanted, Thompson could write in this captivating manner, and as I have demonstrated, he likely took it from Fitzgerald. It is most commonly used at the end of a text, or at the end of a section within a larger piece of writing, to deliver an emotional gut-punch. It is usually used in a wistful, nostalgic sense, with twists and turns that lead us to his insightful final thought.

He does it at the end of “The Temptations of Jean-Claude Killy”, stringing multiple paragraphs of long sentences, building clause upon clause, before hitting his reader with shorter paragraphs comprised of clipped, terse sentences that cut right to the point. (He evens mentions Gatsby here, comparing Killy’s rise and fall to that of Fitzgerald’s titular character.) The syllabic composition looks pretty similar to our examples from above:

jean-claude killy

This is hardly an exact science, of course, but it shows a recurring pattern that explains, at least for me, a familiar feeling when reading some of Thompson’s more impressive works. He is often thought of as the wild man of literature, and some sneer at his inclusion in the literary canon. Not all of his work was equal in quality, but on his finest form, Thompson’s prose was magnificent. I think what makes Gonzo a one man genre is not that others are incapable of mimicking his more obvious literary devices, but rather that they do so without appreciation of the more subtle ones.